Machinery Rules

A few months ago a friend asked me if I had ever read, or seen, The Sand Pebbles. I replied that the closest I’d come was the Mad Magazine parody of the film. My friend felt this was a serious gap in my experience and offered to loan me the book and his DVD of the film.

Two things I should explain at this point. The first is that I’m always open to trying new things. That is, assuming they’re not utterly insane, extremely illegal or likely to cause harm. (Mildly insane, slightly illegal or probably harmless, yeah, okay, keep talking.) I would rather try a new restaurant than one I know, and I’ve turned down many a road just to see where it went.

The second thing is that, as much as I love movies, I’m not real big on war movies or westerns. The friend mentioned above loves both, and has been rather pointed sometimes about the “gaps” in my collection.

I can’t really account for the general lack of interest in westerns. And there are many exceptions. I like the Clint Eastwood westerns, starting with the “spaghetti westerns” and all the way to Unforgiven, which I thought was his masterpiece.  (I’ve heard comments about, but have not yet seen, his speech at the RNC. As with Mel Gibson, people you’ve liked can surprise you unpleasantly sometimes.)

And I also really liked Open Range. In part because I really like Kevin Costner. Two of his three baseball movies are in my top 25 all-time favorite films. I even liked Waterworld!

But it’s also because Open Range is a very cool western. The gun fight scene at the end, for the first time in a western, gave me the feel of being in the middle of it. You could hear the sound of bullets whizzing past, and the lenses and camera positions were selected to make you feel like you were standing right there.

(As I understand it, the entire gun fight was choreographed as realistically as possible. Then they figured out how to film it.)

Come to think of it, I can name other westerns I’ve enjoyed. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for example.  And Bad Day At Black Rock (although some question whether it’s really a western). Maybe it’s that I was never really into “The Duke,” who—along with Eastwood—is America’s Mr. Western (The Duke did a lot of war movies, too).

But when it comes to war films, I do know why I have such a low interest. Two reasons, actually. Most war films are World War II films, and that usually means Nazis. To quote some guy, “I hate Nazis!”  I think they should be completely forgotten, ignored, set behind us as a key entry on the Never Do This Again list. I don’t want them in my books or my movies or any part of my life.

The second—somewhat related—reason is a growing dissatisfaction with death as entertainment. It bothered me that hundreds of computer-generated beings died for my entertainment in the final battle in LOTR. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the computer-generated wives waiting and worrying back in their computer-generated homes.

[As a kid, I couldn’t watch Lassie, because I was always terrified something bad would happen to Lassie. Forget Timmy and the well; I was concerned about the dog!]

So, while I like the military and enjoy films about the military (remember, JAG and NCIS are all-time favorites), I’m just not big on actual war movies (parodies or black comedies are a different matter). And, truth be told, as a life-long science fiction fan, both westerns and war movies have a serious lack of aliens, spaceships or laser guns.

But when a friend (especially one whose judgement I regard) says,  “You really need to read this book (or see this movie),” my response is, “Okay, gimme.”

My friend hit a home run on this one.  The Sand Pebbles is most excellent! Considering it was not even close to the sort of book I would pick for myself, it was an enthralling story. And the movie, which stars Steven McQueen, is very good and very faithful to the book.

I’m not going to talk about the book or film. You can read about it at Wikipedia if you want to. I’m providing a context for a quote from the book.  This bit of text spoke to me so strongly that I typed it into a text file to save forever. The quote speaks about a guy like me.

All you need to know now is that Jake Holman, the protagonist, entered the military to escape legal punishment, became an Machinist’s Mate and has a serious problem with authority. Here’s the quote:

The secret was simple. They could not get along without the machinery. If it did not run, the ship would be a cold, dark, dead hulk in the water. And it did not work with engines to order them to run and to send down the marines to shoot them if they did not run. No admiral could court-martial an engine. All machinery cared about a man was what he knew and what he could do with his two hands, and nobody could fool it on those things. Machinery always obeyed its own rules, and if you broke the rules it didn’t matter how important or charming or pure in heart you were, you couldn’t get away with it. Machinery was fair and honest and it could force people to be fair and honest. Jake Holman began to love machinery.

It brought his mind alive again. Just as it had been with him in high school, he found that he could learn the inner secrets of machinery faster than anybody else. Just as it had been with his high school teachers, he discovered the basic ignorance of his senior petty officers, and of course they hated him for that. But they were also accountable to their officers for the machinery, and they were all secretly afraid of their machinery, and when they were convinced that Jake Holman knew more about it than they could ever learn, they were happy enough to let him take care of it and keep them out of trouble. The only favor he wanted in return was to be excused from all the musters and inspections and topside military crap. That was an easy favor to grant, and they always granted it. Whenever he could, Holman always transferred to a smaller ship. The smaller the ship, the less they had of military crap.

Jake Holman is another soul brother. As with Doctor House, I see myself in every word. I have survived, flourished, by being very good in the arcane arts of machines. I understand the hearts of machines. And I have used that skill to be “excused from all the musters” and “crap.” And I have been hated for being better at it than them.

When I first read those two paragraphs, I went back and read them again. And then again. And then I thought, “Okay. So I’m not the only one. Someone gets it.” (If I have one major complaint about my life, it’s that so few people truly get me.)

I share this with you as an insight into yours truly and to perhaps open a door to a new experience. Who knows, maybe you, too, will find yourself in this.

In closing, one thing about the book (or movie) should you read (or see) it for the first time. At some point during the tale, you may find yourself thinking, “Oh, this can’t end well.” You want to go with that feeling and brace yourself. The story is a tragedy in the classic sense.

And, thankfully, Hollywood didn’t Hollywoodize the ending.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Machinery Rules

  • It's only P!

    It is hard to truly get multi-faceted people, Wyrd, very hard (and can be threatening). At the very least it takes a while… 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Threatening” seems to be the operative word, and I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. To me, people with capabilities are fascinating and wonderful and can help me grow. Why would anyone want not to learn something new or grow?

      It’s like our recent round regarding et aliae. I learned something new, and I think that’s great!

      • It's only P!

        To you, yes, and to me too, people with capabilities are fascinating. But to others, knowledgeable people can be threatening. Sometimes they see those as know-it-alls, or one-uppers, although the ‘clever’ guy or gal really doesn’t mean to come across as such. Therefore, presentation is everything.

        You would do well as a teacher or professor, where your students would no doubt hang onto your every word – I mean this, I think you would be fantastic ‘up’ there. But in day to day life we don’t always deal with people that are keen to learn. One cannot flaunt one’s knowledge, worldliness, culturedness, just to name a few no no’s. So get with the program. 😛 And to truly know you, there is faaaar more to discover than just your extensive general and specialised knowledge, surely? 🙂

        This is a great topic to philosophise about, because unless we ask, we don’t know how other people see us. BTW, it’s because of you that I learnt how to italicise and such in comments. Thank you.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think my problem is that, while I’ve understood what you say about presentation for a long time, I’ve never managed to find a way to pull it off such that, (a) I’m successful in not triggering peoples’ negative reaction, and (b) I can remain true to myself. I’ve found I can be partially successful only when I pretend to be someone I’m not, and I just can’t live like that.

        I have done some teaching and mentoring. There are many teachers and preachers in my family tree, so it’s a natural mode for me. If I do end up in forced early retirement, I’ll be looking into that as a new part-time profession. (And isn’t it lovely how we teach each other! New music, new words, new tricks!!)

        And, indeed, yes, this blog is, in part, a search for feedback and for those who are on my wavelength. And here you are! 😉

      • It's only P!

        I feel the same. You’re just a lot brighter than I am, ha ha! I can’t program to save my life. I can sew though. 🙂 I’m not an intellectual, but life without intellectual stimulation is not worth living. I spent the last couple of years in places where my brain was starved of stimulation. I wasn’t blogging, I wasn’t chatting and became more and more cerebrally starved. I am so happy you’re protecting me from cognitive decline! 😉

        On a more serious note… ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ And being true to yourself is commendable. I’ve always lobbied for it. However, both can shoot the practitioner in his own foot. So there is always that risk and this is a choice. Bear the consequences. You’ve said that you’re direct and opinionated. Those are guarantees for putting people’s backs up. I know this because I share those wretched traits. I’ve tried to eat humble pie (causes indigestion) and I’ve tried to grovel (people just want to trample you) and I’ve done my best to be more diplomatic (people thought I had a hidden agenda because they sensed I was not frank).

        So the moral of the story is that whether we are direct or force ourselves to be diplomatic, we lose? Frankly, I’m tired of it, and have for the first time in my life kept quiet about certain issues because broaching them wouldn’t get me anywhere anyway. You could say that a kind of acquiescence has come over me. Nice.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, exactly. And since you risk losing either way, I choose to be true to who I really am and accept the consequences. And it does serve a purpose; it’s like a filter of sorts. The people who make it through the filter are almost always the sort of people I really enjoy. They’re the ones who understand that life is a process of growing, learning and being challenged. Them’s my peeps!

        But my recent mission of self-improvement involves learning when to just smile or say “no” or “yes” without offering my opinion on the matter. And maybe having a blog will siphon off my need to opine elsewhere!

  • Herman Koranek

    I’ve loved the story, read the book at least four time from cover to cover, watched the movie many, many times, have my own copy of book and vcr of movie.

    In the quote, from the book: “The secret is simple…”, in numerous printings of the book, the proofreaders missed this, got it wrong, all printings of the book had this:

    ……And it did not work with engines to order them to run and to send down the marines to shoot them if they did not run.,,,,,,,”

    The correct word is “ensigns,” not “engines.” An ensign is the lowest officer grade in the Navy.

    How can an “engine” order itself to work? Obvious misprint. It’s been wrong all these years!!!!!!!!!!!

    Thanks you,

    Herman Koranek
    Retired Navy Chief Yeoman (E-7)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

      Isn’t that the point of the quote? That you can’t order machines to run. The engines are either working or not, no orders from higher ranks, no threat of shooting or court marshal works. You need that guy who makes them run. I’m not sure that’s a misprint at all!

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